September 2011 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the September issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week. The movies open in Tokyo from late August through mid-September.

Battle: Los Angeles
It would be easy to blame this cacophonous war movie on Cloverfield: the same woozy, handheld photography (only without the conceit of amateur vidographers); an invasion of monsters (who are just as indistinct); and more cliches than you can shake a clapper at. One thing you have to say for it: It doesn’t mess around with formula. It dives right into action before pulling back to give us the dull particulars about the squadron of marines who we’ll follow into battle: a head case, a medical student from Nigeria, a virgin rookie, and a cat whose brother just died in combat. The adversary is an invading army of extraterrestrials who are after our water. Some will see all sorts of parallels with oil and the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the movie has no interest in reality. The whole culture of the U.S. Marines has become so cinematized that I’m sure most real marines don’t know how to act until they’re shown Jarhead. Aaron Eckhart plays Staff Sgt. Nantz, a career soldier who has decided to call it quits after leading a group to their slaughter in some Middle East hellhole. He has to put all that off when the beasties from outer space start zapping the surfers at Santa Monica, but he’s second-in-command to a newbie lieutenant (Ramon Rodriguez) whose lack of decisiveness becomes a problem when the mushroom-headed, stick-legged, weapon-fused-to-arm universal soldiers start jumping out of the woodwork. Nantz has to take control of the mission, which is to secure a police station where civilians have taken shelter and lead them to safety before all of downtown is bombed back to Bedrock. His main problem is that the men don’t trust him, having heard about his disastrous mission over there. Chris Bertolini’s script gives everybody a chance to be a hero, even the Mexican dad (Michael Pena) who despairs that he always made “the wrong choices” for his little boy. “Choice” is the last word you’d associate with Battle: Los Angeles, which is so machine-driven you can recite the war-weary lines right along with the actors. “That’s some real John Wayne shit,” one marine comments approvingly after Nantz lures an alien drone to a gas pump, which he then blows up. No, actually, that’s some real Bruce Willis shit, except Nantz doesn’t whoop it up afterwards. The invaders are the perfect war movie enemy: literally pieces of meat with no souls. There’s even one scene where Nantz and a pretty veterinarian (Bridget Moynahan) butcher a wounded alien in order to find his “vital spot” so that his men know where to shoot more effectively “and thus save ammunition.” It turns out to be “just to the right of the heart.” Good stuff to know the next time you’re in an alien invasion.

Countdown to Zero
As far as award-winning foreign documentaries go, this is the kind of thing the Japanese want to see, not The Cove. Of course, most of the salient points made in Lucy Walker’s film about the threat of nuclear annihilation were already made during the cold war–in fact, the movie’s development is structured around an address by President John F. Kennedy to the UN in 1961. You can’t stress this sort of danger enough, especially in a post-911 world where there are so many “rogue” players with access to atomic materials. Walker playfully trades in fear, explicating by means of clever graphics and dumbed-down metaphors how a bomb “the size of a tennis ball” could flatten a whole city. With the help of unimpeachable experts she also explains how such devices could be easily smuggled. The point, in the end, is to move the audience toward convincing their political leaders to get rid of nuclear weapons; a noble mission, and one that has to compete with other fear-mongering efforts, like those which target people of different cultural persuasions.

Days of Heaven
Like Lawrence of Arabia and 2001:A Space Odyssey, Terrence Malick’s sophomore 1978 feature is one of those epics that only makes sense on the big screen, though unlike the aforementioned films its place in the pantheon is open to debate. Basically a love triangle between a field laborer (Richard Gere), his lover who poses as his sister (Brooke Adams), and the rich farmer they work for (Sam Shepard, in his first film acting role) set in 1920s Texas, the movie literally placed its characters at the mercy of nature and/or God, the forces of which are rendered in both apocalyptic (fire, locusts) and symbolic terms. The storytelling is suggestive and unreliable, so while Nestor Almendros’s cinematography and Ennio Morricone’s score work overtime on your emotions, the characters’ actions may simply seem puzzling; and, as proven by Malick’s latest work, The Tree of Life, which gets its dramatic points across very well, it may have been a matter of narrative misjudgment. In any case, it’s a visual and aural experience that can’t be matched. (photo: Paramount Pictures Corp.)

The Ghost Writer
To venture the opinion that The Ghost Writer is Roman Polanski’s best movie since Chinatown requires way too many qualifiers. Robert Harris’s story, based on his own novel, isn’t half the monster that Robert Towne’s screenplay was, and Polanski’s engagement with the material here is more intellectual than visceral. Nevertheless, the tale, as implausible as it is, provides genuine momentum, the kind that Polanski thrives on, and the movie grabs you from the opening scene and never lets go. Ewan McGregor plays the title character, otherwise unnamed. He’s been hired to clean up the memoir of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) and is kept a virtual prisoner in the pol’s remote mansion on the New England coast while a scandal explodes back in Europe that threatens to turn Lang into a war criminal. The fact that the Ghost is anonymous and no one knows he’s here in this gorgeous, albeit creepy abode is enough to tip the audience off that he’s in some sort of danger, but Polanski’s debt to Hitchcock doesn’t end there. Though the writer’s misgivings about the job have been acute since it was first offered to him by a group of shady factotums–his predecessor, after all, died before finishing the task–his natural curiosity is piqued by Lang’s beautiful wife (Olivia Williams), whose evasions are as seductive as they are puzzling, and the vehemence of some of Lang’s detractors. Before he knows it, he’s slipping out to meet with people of interest, all of whom happen to be within a day’s driving distance of Martha’s Vineyard. That’s the sort of implausibility we’re talking about, but just as Polanski can make you believe that a stretch of north German coastline is Massachusetts (after all, he still can’t travel to the U.S.), he can also make you overlook these gaps in perception through the sheer intensity of his filmmaking skills. The Ghost’s hazardous trajectory seems as inevitable as James Stewart’s lovelorn descent into personal peril in Vertigo, another tale that didn’t stand up to close inspection but nevertheless paid off emotionally in spades. It helps, of course, that the actors know exactly what they’re about. Brosnan, in particular, plays up his character’s volatility with such vigor that you understand he could have only remained the leader of a free country with a great deal of assistance. McGregor, meanwhile, balances his character’s self-assurance with a naive streak that never seems over-played; maybe because the viewer has so much invested in his risk-taking. And while the same viewer can see the ending a mile away, that investment ensures it’s no less startling and disturbing for having been predicted. As trite as it sounds, they just don’t make ’em like this any more. (photo: Summit Entertainment LLC)

Green Lantern
It says a lot about this contender for the summer’s biggest sci-fi action title
that the “human interest” component of the plot outstrips the action sequences and computer graphics; which isn’t to say the earth-bound story is compelling, only that it is vastly more interesting than the fantasy elements. Like Thor, the plot bounces back-and-forth between our world and a cosmic other-world where beings live as gods. In this case, however, it’s a kind of Eden lorded over by immortals who have assembled an intergalactic police force to keep evil in check. However, a renegade entity, believed to have been liquidated, is unleashed accidentally and grows more powerful by feeding on the fear it instills in others. When one of the defenders is mortally wounded, he crashes to earth and seeks out his own replacement, a being that should be fearless. He ends up with Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a hot-shot test pilot with dead Daddy issues and a streak of self-loathing that would seem to make him unfit as a cosmic cop. Director Martin Campbell does the best that he can with this origin story courtesy of DC Comics, but the adolescent tone of the hero-worship doesn’t travel well over the five or so decades since the story was first published. There’s something irreppresibly corny about Jordan’s petulant self-regard, which makes his romance with sometime-boss Carol Ferris (Blake Lively) less than credible or stimulating. If the movie has any spark it’s the nemesis, a brainy dork named Hector (Peter Sarsgaard) whose entire existence revolves around pleasing his senator father (Tim Robbins), who wishes his son were more like the muscle-bound macho man Hal Jordan. So when Hector is called upon to do an autopsy on the Green Lantern member who fell to earth, he is infected with the same death force that killed the alien and starts to morph into an evil power that feeds off Hector’s resentments. Thanks to Sarsgaard, this section of the film lives up to the comic’s more outrageous fantasy ambitions and puts proof to the election of Jordan to the Green Lantern squad. Unfortunately, it’s only a preface to a larger battle against the greater evil force (called the Parallax, in case that’s important), which wants nothing less than to absorb the whole universe. It would seem that the farther down Hollywood digs for well-known superheroes, the higher the stakes in terms of how much is destroyed. In Thor it was only the entire earth that was threatened. Here, it’s the universe, and no amount of CG power can put across that sort of mind-boggling concept. The main theme of Jordan overcoming his fears and convincing these block-headed aliens–who are supposedly more evolutionarily advanced than humans–of their short-sightedness pales in comparison. No one over the age of eight is ever going to buy it. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment & DC Comics)

The Housemaid
Im Sang-soo remakes Kim Ki-young’s legendary 1960 black comedy about an upwardly mobile middle class family undone by the machinations of the house maid they hire. Im reverses the vector of victimhood, making the family ultra-rich scions and assholes, to boot, and the maid a poor girl (Jeon Do-yeon) who becomes the mistress of the master (Lee Jung-jae), though her main nemesis is the older housekeeper (Youn Yuh-jung), whose position is more than it seems. Stylish and a bit campy, The Housemaid has a lot going on and Im, who managed to juggle several thematic balls successfully in The President’s Last Bang, drops a few before the shocking ending, which is a little less shocking for its lack of clarity. Less a social satire than a rough exploration of the different species of female empowerment (the pregnant-with-twins wife means to keep her position, too), the movie works too hard to sell its transgressive outlook. You may laugh at the sex and in the end realize the film probably would have worked better as a straight bedroom farce. (photo: Mirovision Inc.)

It Might Get Loud
It sounded great in the proposal: Three generations of grade-A axe-slingers meeting on a soundstage and trading tips, stories, and licks. But in the end, director Davis Guggenheim falls back on individual trips rather than a rawkin’ meeting of the minds. Jimmy Page is the most entertaining, showing us the mansion where the fourth Led Zeppelin album was recorded and reminiscing about his days as a teen session guitarist. The Edge shows us the school where U2 started and is the only member of the triumvirate who delves into technique. Jack White plays the contrarian, a young’un whose favorite song is an a capella blues by Son House and who still plays the plastic guitar he bought at Montgomery Ward. When Guggenheim hits paydirt–a smoking live set by White that leaves his fingers bleeding, vintage British TV footage of Lonnie Donegan freaking out–it seems almost accidental, and the only time we get anything approaching a summit is during the closing credits when the three guitarists play “The Weight,” on acoustic guitars and not particularly well. (photo: Steel Curtain Pictures LLC)

The Man From Nowhere
Not just formulaic, but Korean formulaic, this bloody revenge thriller is nevertheless so flawlessly executed that you may overlook how lazy the writing is. Tae-sik (Won Bin) is a sullen pawnbroker in a rundown neighborhood of Seoul. He befriends a little girl whose mother, a junkie and dancer, rips off the mob who runs the night club where she works and is summarily disposed of. That doesn’t bother Tae-sik as much as the fact that the girl is kidnapped and sold to a group of Chinese organ traffickers. After Tae-sik himself disposes of some baddies in record time, it becomes obvious that his skills are professional ones, and as the action gets more complex and the violence gorier we learn something of his mysterious, tragic past. As usual there are some ineffectual, highly unconventional cops in the mix, and since Tae-sik doesn’t care about the inter-gang dynamics, there’s little reason for you to care as well. But some of the action set pieces, especially the chases which are presented as one-take edits–even when characters leap through windows!–are top-of-the-line. (photo: CJ Entertainment Inc & United Pictures)

One Life
Yet another gorgeous nature documentary from BBC Earth, this one has more trouble explicating an overall theme, especially since most of the images are hardly new. The narration, courtesy in Japan of father-daughter duo Koshiro Matsumoto and Takako Matsu, lets on that it’s about the “cycle” of life that starts with protecting one’s offspring to feeding oneself and ending with courtship and procreation (as opposed to death, though there’s plenty of that along the way). Mainly, it has to do with finding animal behaviors that are startling. Certainly, the best sequences are those that defy logic: a fox chasing a baby mountain goat up a sheer rock face; a komodo dragon biting a water buffalo on the leg and waiting a week or so for the bacteria to kill off the animal before finishing it off. As usual, the sheer technical mastery of the photography is worth the price of admission, though BBC might want to cool it a bit. I, for one, am getting jaded by how easily it is to film the inside of a hornets’ nest. (photo: BBC Earth Prod. Ltd.)

Based on a graphic novel, Scott Stewart’s vampire saga is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where humans, under the protective aegis of a Catholic-seeming “Church,” live in dank, dark cities, supposedly safe from their age-old enemies, the vampires, which in this fantasy are not the smooth, Draculesque blood-suckers of Twilight or True Blood, but rather eyeless, amphibian-like demons that simply rampage and kill. In this world the priests are the warrior class, with such superhuman powers that they’ve managed to single-handedly defeat the vampires…or so it seems. Living outside of the cities are what used to be called “sodbusters” in old Westerns. In fact, the movie takes as its narrative model John Ford’s The Searchers. A family is atttacked by a rampaging group of vampires, the parents slaughtered and the daughter abducted. The outpost’s sheriff (Cam Gigandet) locates the girl’s uncle, one of the decommisioned priests (Paul Bettany), who is denied permission from the head monsignor (Christopher Plummer) to pursue the abductee because “vampires no longer exist.” Risking excommunication, the priest sets off with the sheriff, and like John Wayne with regard to Natalie Wood, he vows that if the girl has been “infected,” he will have to kill her. That would imply that the vampires have something in common with the Indians, but Priest only goes so far with the social metaphors. Even the idea that the Church is simply covering its ass in order to maintain its hold on power is only marginally addressed. The priest’s crisis of faith gets short shrift, too, mainly as a means of providing a romantic link with another priest (Maggie Q), who happens to be a woman. (If the Church has turned even more authoritarian, at least it’s become more equal opportunity) But the film’s primary agenda is frantic CG violence in 3D, and despite the viciousness of the vampires’ attack style, the set pieces are strangely bloodless. A lot of stuff happens on the edge of the screen, or even off of it, and the most exciting things involve motorcycles, runaway trains, crosses that turn into whirling weapons, and guns. In other words, there’s nothing much new here except the context, which Stewart doesn’t take full advantage of. Even the underlying mystery involving a black-hatted cowboy who seems to be in cahoots with the vampire hordes barely merits exposition until a hasty explanation at the very end. What’s particularly frustrating is that the whole movie is set up as a kind of prologue to a more fully imagined series, but one doubts there will be a sequel. This may be the first movie based on a graphic serial that is more a promotion for the graphic serial than it is for itself.

Surviving Life
Czech animator Jan Svankmajer’s natural medium is the dream state, so it makes sense that he has finally produced a feature that deals forthrightly with what dreams are made of. Rather than tell a story that seems like a dream, the story itself is about a man who basically wants to sleep all the time so that he can live as much as possible in his dreams. Since this is Svankmajer, the idea is presented ironically; the filmmaker himself, in stop-action mode, appears at the beginning of the film to grouse that “there’s no money in dreams,” meaning, of course, there’s no money in films about dreams…or making the kinds of films he always makes. This little joke, however, doesn’t quite prepare those viewers familiar with Svankmajer’s work for the heightened accessibility of Surviving Life. On the terms laid out–Svankmajer mostly abandons his patented three-dimensional stop-motion methodology for a cut-out 2D form reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s work with Monty Python–it could rightfully be called a commercial film; except, of course, that commercial films in the Czech Republic have always been a bit denser, more cynical. But our hero, Evzen (Vaclav Helsus), simply wants to sleep, because when he does he dreams of a desirable young woman (Klara Issova) whose name changes over time, though it always begins with an E, like Evzen’s. At first, one can understand his obsession. Evzen’s wife Milada (Zuzanna Kornerova) is middle aged, dowdy, and on the shrewish side. His job as a Kafka-like office functionary brings him down. Who wouldn’t want to spend as much time in the arms of a beautiful young woman. So when Evzen consults a psychiatrist (Daniela Bakerova), it’s not to find out why he’s dreaming what he’s dreaming, it’s to figure out a way to remain as long as possible in his dreams. Psychiatrists being psychiatrists, however, the good doctor starts digging into Evzen’s childhood memories, which are repressing some predictably traumatic events involving his mother. Meanwhile, portraits of Freud and Jung battle it out on the wall for dominance of the psychoanalytical dynamic and show that however melancholy Svankmajer’s theme of a man who sublimates his past by turning it into a sexual fantasy is (maybe melancholy isn’t the word), there’s no reason to think you also can’t have fun with it. Image-wise, this is pure Svankmajer, even if the furry, textile textures of his classic work are mostly absent. When the actors are the focus, they’re often in painful closeup; but there is plenty of hilarious grotesquerie on display, like disembodied tongues and naked women with chicken heads. Repetition adds meaning where none may be intended, but Svankmajer’s kitchen sink philosophy presses its own aesthetic argument. You’ll never dream the same way again. (photo: Athanor)

Upside Down
The natural companion doc to Grant Gee’s movie about Joy Division or 24 Hour Party People, Upside Down continues the history of England’s pop music development with the tale of Creation Records and its founder-chief execrable officer Alan McGee. A semi-successful indie musician himself, McGee latched onto the fledgling acid house scene while promoting edgy pop groups like The Jesus and Mary Chain. However, it wasn’t until the Chain’s amateur drummer, Bobby Gillespie, struck off on his own with Primal Scream that Creation invented Britpop, and from there McGee’s vision was unerring: My Bloody Valentine, House of Love, Ride, Swervedriver, and, of course, Oasis. McGee’s party-hearty tendencies eventually got the better of him, and apropos his manic personality, the movie is often incomprehensible, not so much because of the profusion of Scottish accents but rather due to director Danny O’Connor’s difficulty in getting the business side of the story to jibe with the creative side. It’s basically: Alan spent all his money on drugs, so thank God Sony Music was around to keep things going. (photo: Document Films)

The Ward
John Carpenter’s first movie in a decade is a for-hire work about a young woman, Kristen (Amber Heard), who is sent to a mental hospital after torching a farm house. It’s the early 60s, so we get some relatively primitive treatments, not to mention a gender dynamic that makes it easier to portray the female patients as victims of society’s stringent mores. However, there’s also a doctor (Jared Harris) who seems more sympathetic than what we would normally expect from such a movie, and thus we wait for the other shoe to drop. As Kristen, who judges herself sane, tries to break out of the hospital, she learns the other girls’ stories and begins to suspect that a former patient is stalking the corridors at night, gruesomely eliminating her fellow inmates for purposes of revenge. Carpenter’s patented frights are OK, but his real strengths as an ensemble director and composer of scenes are undermined by the script from newcomers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, who complicate matters unnecessarily in order to reach a dodgy conclusion. (photo: Chamberlain Films LLC)

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